Academy matters deeply in Limerick
By Cian O'Connell
The signs are encouraging. Munster minor titles collected in 2013 and 2014, Under 21 provincial crowns in 2015 and 2017, an All Ireland Under 21 two years ago.
Limerick's sheer hard graft is being reflected on the national stage. Inevitably hopes are high for the future in the south west. The Limerick Academy continues to earn praise and plaudits because silverware is being accumulated by green and white teams.
How Limerick colleges are faring in the competitive environs of the Harty Cup and Independent.ie Fitzgibbon Cup offers another layer of satisfaction.
Noel Hartigan, Games Development Manager with Limerick GAA, is satisfied with how the county is currently faring.
“We have a lot of work going on in schools which is leading into clubs and leading into lads getting into the development or Academy squads,” Hartigan explains. “This feeds into the Academy eventually.”
So how does the Limerick Academy system operate? When the initial group met with Joe McKenna, Mike O'Riordan, the County Board Secretary at the time, they would have set up an implementation group.
“After the identification of the coaches there would have been meetings and ideas put in place about what ideally we would like each squad to do. Initially Saturday morning would have been the time at UL, Limerick Coaching and Games used the new UL astroturf pitches, that became the base for the Academy. You would have had the minor team followed by the Under 16s, then Under 15s, and Under 14s. That was between 9 and 1 o'clock every Saturday morning.
“To be fair the Bord na nOg at the time made sure there were no games going ahead on Saturday so it was totally dedicated to the Academy. It was free for the players to come in and it wasn't necessarily interfering with club fixtures. The majority of it was run on Saturday mornings through the base in UL.”
When do players start getting involved with the Academy? “The first stage of entering the Academy is Under 14,” Hartigan says.
“We would run regional Under 13 teams before that, but it wouldn't specifically come under the Academy. It is more just getting lads used to the idea of working as county or underage development players.
“The Academy then kicks in from Under 14 on. Within Limerick there is a committee- an implementation group- that looks after hurling and football. They and the County Board firstly identify coaches - usually past players or coaches that might have worked with clubs at senior level - they'd have several coaches for each age group. There is a process then to select players.”
One of the crucial factors is the level of co-operation between clubs, schools, and county. “Yeah, there is and we are probably lucky that one of the first groups that came into it are the lads that will be taking the field on Saturday,” Hartigan admits.
“They were one of the earlier teams coming in. You are looking at a team beforehand that had narrowly lost to Waterford at minor level which had the likes of Shane Dowling and Declan Hannon. In 2012, 2013, and the 2014 minor team especially just progressed through the ranks. A better structure was being put on the Academy then.
“The implementation committee put a structure in place with the introduction of Jerry Wallace as an overall head of the Academy. There was a bit more strength and conditioning introduced, so players were getting exposed to those sort of things rather than just doing what they previously have been doing with their clubs.”
Hartigan acknowledges the roles of teachers at Post Primary level with several Limerick outfits now competing in the Harty Cup. “Ardscoil Ris had been working very hard throughout the years, it didn't happen for them overnight either,” Hartigan says. “Ardscoil Ris worked tirelessly over a number of years and probably set up a system within the school and when they started kicking on Castletroy got a good bit of talent coming in, you had Doon as well.
“You now had players of a real level hurling at a high level all year round. You had guys playing Harty Cup and Munster A Colleges in winter time. So when they were finished with their clubs they were playing Harty Cup and were involved in high profile, high intensity winter hurling games. So they were bordering on being game ready when the Academy kicked on.
“There would have been a certain amount of over lapping with the Academy and working with the schools. They would have been trying to build up close relationships with the schools to ensure the players were getting proper coaching and game time with both groups.”
Limerick won three All Ireland Under 21 titles in a row between 2000 and 2002, but they are hopeful of sustaining the current manner in which talented players are being more developed. “There is more of a pathway now than there was previously,” Hartigan states.
“Around the three in a row team, while there initially had been a plan in place back then, a five year plan which brought a lot of lads to play in the three in a row team. While Limerick didn't achieve the same level of success overall back then we still reached a couple of Nenagh Co-op finals.
“There was a plan in place, but teams worked individually now there is more joined up thinking. There is more of a pathway.
“The lads that came out of minor they mightn't have progressed to Under 21s without making sure there was the proper pathway and system.
“The Under 21 panel this year is quite large in that some of them played in the Munster Under 25 competition so they were getting high quality games and training sessions compared to previous teams got maybe 20 years back.”
A winning habit is being acquired and a culture has been created. “What you had was a fella might have had a brother involved,” Hartigan remarks. “When the team on Saturday were minors you'd have the Under 15s looking up at them. They felt they could be involved in teams that would be going for Munster titles. They would be looking down the line.
“There was that ethos there and there was an education among the coaches as to where they wanted to take Limerick. It wasn't necessarily to win all at Under 14 or Under 15 it was that you'd have players ready to compete at minor.
"This year was the first year in four years that Limerick weren't in a Munster Final or an All Ireland Quarter-Final at least so you had a level of success.
“In that space time we won two Munster Finals, we competed in Four Munster Finals, we got to two All Ireland Finals. From that you had an Under 21 success two years ago and hopefully another one on Saturday.”
John Kiely, the Limerick senior manager, and Pat Donnelly, the Under 21 boss, are familiar with what is being carried out by those involved with the Academy. “Pat is from my own club, we are both from South Liberties,” Hartigan comments.
“Pat was involved with an Under 15 group and he worked his way up along with that group. He managed the minors in 2015 and 2016, he managed them into the All Ireland minor final. He has a good bit of work down. He is in another final now, there was an education of coaches and Pat would have worked up with that.
“John was involved with John Allen in 2013, he was a senior selector that year. He was a selector with the Limerick Under 21s in 2011, so he was around the Academy structure which was in its infancy at that time. John Allen brought him in and he came back to win the All Ireland Under 21 in 2015. He was very involved with his school Abbey CBS, he came through a good system as well.”
Throughout the past couple of decades Limerick were always watching and learning. Now they are ready, willing, and able to compete; the future glimmers with promise.